Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Before They Were Stars . . .

I'm at the dregs of my TBR pile. The long pregnancy wait, nonexistent library time, and a mother who'd much rather send cute baby clothes than books right now have dried up my incoming sources and sent me scourging my shelves. But, I'd still rather read (now that I have one free hand) than fry my brain with more HGTV, so I've found myself breaking into a stash I had of books written by my favorite authors, but from when they wrote category or before they broke out into the big time.

I found them at garage sales and library sales for a song (and a quarter or two). But, I tend not to read anything more than 10 years out of date if I can help it. But, I decided to put my bias aside and give some of these a shot. And what do you know, the 80's details didn't set me off.

Instead, poor writing has me tossing books aside right and left. If you're a longtime blog reader, you know that I can't STAND to not finish books. Even bad books. But, apparently all this RWA learnin' has paid off in an unexpected way: my standards have raised.

I can't stand backstory. Head hopping makes my stomach hurt. Dragging narrative makes me sleepy. Falling in love too soon makes me yawn. Nonexistent conflict makes 3 a.m. feedings physically painful and sends me wandering the halls with a baby attached for new reading materials.

But, back to my original point. These were written by NYT best-sellers. These aren't some random category or dated books. These are by the best of the best.

Only . . .

They weren't the best yet. They were still developing their voice, learning POV, honing their plot skills, suffering from poor editing, and limited by narrative gaffes. In short, they were making newbie mistakes.

It's easy to be intimidated when we pick up the latest best seller. "My work will never be this good," the green-eyed devil whispers. "They have some gift I lack." "They have the secret." But, they don't. What they have is a lot of hard work, and a pile of manuscripts that led them the to the one that catapulted them to the big time. And after that magical point, they had a backlist worthy of devouring. But, except in rare cases, it wasn't their first book. It wasn't the third. It was years into their journey.

What can we take away from this other than the usual lesson of perseverance?

Finishing a MS isn't enough. Publishing isn't enough. In fact, publishing your way to better writing might not be an option anymore unless we're talking about very small presses. There is a reason why the RWA first sale column bursts with writers selling their fifth manuscript. Their tenth. Their twentieth.

You don't get good right out of the gate. You don't get good when you let early success go to your head. So you won that contest, landed that first sale, got a good critique. It's not enough. You have to keep pushing, keep growing, and most importantly keep writing. You have to finish. One MS isn't enough. But your magic number is out there waiting.

Are you ready to go find it?

Best of luck to those of you finishing NaNoWriMo, Eli's challenge, and other challenges out there. Each MS you finish is one closer to the promised land.


Genene said...

Hi, Wavy!

I'm honored to actually be the first commenter on your post. I don't usually get to the blog until days after it's posted.

My magic number was one! The first manuscript I sold was the first one I wrote. HOWEVER, it was almost totally rewritten 6 or 8 times, so I guess that doesn't really count as the first.

Interesting that you found early books by NYT bestselling authors weren't their best work. Sometimes, I like their earlier work BETTER. Go figure!

So nice to have you back on the blog!

Paty Jager said...

Great blog, Wavy!

You know I loved Nora's early stuff, before I found RWA, now I have a problem reading it. And some of the older books by authors I have problems reading- for the same reasons you stated.

I think perseverance is key to becoming published. Genene said it was her first book, but she rewrote it 6-8 time really making it her sixth book.

Marshal in Petticoats was my 5th book but I'd gone on and wrote three more after that one before it sold and I reworked it. And I can tell every book since that one has become better written and deeper characters.

So I definitely agree- to get to the top you need to keep climbing and using all the stuff you learn.

Great post, and so good to have you back!

Karen Duvall said...

Wow, Wavy, that was special! Very wise words and encouraging ones. too.

I've been reading a lot of discussions lately, mostly on blogs, about writers getting published before they're ready. Eager writers sometimes do whatever it takes just to see their books in print (electronic or paper), and jump the gun. Many micro presses (epublishers) aren't always discriminating when it comes to adding books to their queue and this bodes ill for the starstruck author. Having a not-yet-ready-for-human-consumption book on the shelves, digital or physical, could damage a writer's reputation before even getting a career off the ground.

My point is that it's always in a writer's best interest to struggle through the first 3 or 4 books before being published (or rewrite the one book 3 or 4 times ;-)).

I know what you mean, Wavy, about raising your standards. I go back to read these fabulous books on my keeper shelf from fifteen years ago and yikes! What was I thinking? LOL!

I think the bar's been raised since then, too. And competition is more fierce than ever, which is good for readers. Unfortunately, a few stinkers still slip through the cracks now and then, and how that happens mystifies me.

Alice Sharpe said...

Great to see you, Wavy.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm working on my 35th and 36th books and obviously haven't written a break out hit that wowed the NYT bestseller list. That will never happen anyway as long as I write category and I am content where I am for now.

But I have found it to be true, the more you write, the harder it gets because the more you realize you don't know, the more you have to push to keep things interesting for yourself and hopefully your audience.

I have mixed feelings about what you said. On the one hand, Barbara Cool Lee told me studies were done to discover at what age a person hits his or her peak in different professions. An athlete, for instance, might hit it at twenty or thirty, etc. Writers tend to hit their peaks in their fifties.

On the other hand, I have read several authors' entire collections and while they are mystery writers as opposed to romance, the journey is much the same. And like Genene, I have often found I enjoy the earlier books more than the later books, I've enjoyed the freshness, the energy, the take no prisoners approaches that move those books from start to finish.

I would suspect you have become a more discerning reader. That happens to writers, we know some of the tricks. While I used to eagerly absorb a passage that finally explained where the hero was coming from, I now see a sign blinking "Backstory alert" or "information dump." I know a red herring when I read one, even when the author has used the same tricks I try to use to cover my tracks, precisely because I have used the same methods myself.

It's a conundrum!

Come to the Xmas party and I will bring you a sack of books I managed to collect from here and there and perhaps you'll find something interesting to read. The thought of you wondering the 3:00 a.m. halls, baby attached, desperate for reading material, is just too pathetic! (and brings back memories....)

Fun and thought provoking blog.

wavybrains said...

Yes, Tavy and I plan to be at the party. (Or at least *I* plan to be there . . . she may stay w/ daddy . . .).

Genene & Alice--I know what you mean about the energy of earlier works. Janet Evanovich's early stuff is a big part of my current pile, and the energy is great--but oh, the head hopping! I get dizzy.

Danita Cahill said...

Wavy, I'm with you, into the dregs of my bookshelves, the books that I keep pushing off to the side, but now, holiday budgets and the urge to read more than write at the moment is making me anxious for our book exchange at the Christmas party. Especially an exchange with anyone who has all ready read suspenses.

I've tried some of the older books of my fave authors and run into the same situation as you. Generally the characters fall flat, I find little errors throughout the book etc...

Barbara said...

There is a saying that "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I think part of my problem with not writing is that I don't want to write badly, I want to write well. But maybe I need to not worry about the things I'm learning about how to write well and just write badly for a few novels--at least I'd have something on paper and would feel like I am making progress. There's another saying: Progress, not Perfection. I've written these sayings on a piece of paper and propped it up by my computer. We'll see if that helps me get the flow going. Thanks, Wavy!

Paty Jager said...

Hi Barb!

Half the battle is just putting words on the screen or paper. Put the story out there and then as you learn go back and tweak and primp.

You will never feel successful at this until you have written The End on a book. And as along as you have something on the page, you have something to fix!

Write on!

Alice Sharpe said...

For what it's worth, Barb, I agree with Paty. She gave you good advice. Books can teach so much but until you have the practical experience of actually using what you are reading, it will remain more or less academic. Otherwise, all professors of literature would use their summer vacations to write...literature. There is a world of difference between knowing and being able to create and if you are driven to create original material, then go for it. That experience will be worth a hundred books and will make what you are reading so much more accessible.